A Song, A Blast and the Indian Media’s ‘Secular’ Pretensions
Bias against Muslims is deeply-rooted in large sections of the Hindu-owned media in India, even in influential sections of the English press that prides itself in its claim of being ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’. Two ongoing controversies—the Vande Mataram affair and the Malegaon bomb blasts—suffice to confirm this argument.
Some weeks ago, Indian newspapers were awash with reports about Muslims protesting against the suggestion that all children studying in schools be forced to sing the Vande Mataram song, which, numerous Hindu-owned newspapers, television channels and politicians declared, was India’s ‘national song’. Refusal to sing this song, they claimed, was a thoroughly ‘un-patriotic’ act, suggesting, thereby, that Muslims, by definition, were ‘anti-national’. Consequently, Muslims were forced, as they often are, to prove their patriotic credentials, and the overall result of this sordid controversy was to only further reinforce deeply-rooted anti-Muslim feelings among many non-Muslim Indians.
Media projection and coverage of the Vande Mataram controversy was cleverly contrived to put Muslims in the dock and to defend a certain vision of Indian nationalism that is framed in ‘upper’ caste Brahminical Hindu terms, in which Muslims, Dalits and other non-‘upper’ caste Hindu communities have little or no space for their identities, aspirations and interests. Few ‘mainstream’ Indian papers cared to mention crucial facts of the history of the controversial song. The Vande Mataram is part of a novel, the Anandmath, which reeks of anti-Muslim hatred and is the rallying cry of Brahminical Hinduism that is premised on an unrelenting hatred of Muslims. The was the novel written by Bankim Chandra Chatterji, a late nineteenth century Bengali Brahmin, a major cult figure in Hindu ‘nationalist’ circles.
The crux of the novel is an ardent appeal to Hindus to rally against and slaughter Muslims and drive them out of India. The Vande Mataram, sung as a war-cry to rouse Hindu mobs against Muslims, exhorts Hindus to do all this for the sake of the Mother—India deified as the Brahminical goddess Kali or Durga. Curiously enough for a song that is projected by its advocates as the emblem of Indian nationalism, the novel ends with the hero welcoming the British take-over of India. ‘Now the British have arrived’, the hero exclaims with ill-concealed glee, ‘and our wealth and lives will be safe’. ‘The subjects [Hindus] would be happy in the English kingdom’, he goes on, ‘[…] [so] refrain from waging war with the Englishmen […] Your mission has been successful—you have performed [sic.] well-being of the Mother—the English reign has been established’. Now that the Muslims have been killed and driven out and their place has been taken by the British, the hero concludes, the Hindus should accept the British as their ‘ally’.
Hardly the stuff that one would expect from a song that is bandied about as the herald of Indian nationalism and anti-imperialism. Even more curious in this regard is the fact, which the ‘mainstream’ media probably has deliberately sought to conceal, that Bankim Chandra Chatterji was hardly the ardent ‘nationalist’ that he is made out to be. In 1858 he was appointed to the post of Deputy Magistrate by the British, the first Indian to enjoy that dubious distinction in the immediate aftermath of the failed Indian Revolt of 1857. When he retired from that post he was conferred with the titles of Rai Bahadur and Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire by the British, an ‘honour’ reserved, of course, only for pro-British toadies.
From the very start, when Brahminical revivalists in the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha began insisting that the Vande Mataram must be made India’s national song, Muslims and other non-Hindu communities angrily protested. There was no reason, they argued, why non-Hindus should be forced to worship a Hindu deity, even if in the form of ‘Mother India’, suggesting that the equation of Indian nationalism with Brahminical Hinduism was aimed at excluding non-Hindus from the definition of the ‘national mainstream’. The Muslim argument, which has been repeated ad nauseum and highlighted in the Urdu press in the course of the recent controversy, is that the novel of which the song forms a part is clearly anti-Muslim and, furthermore, the Vande Mataram’s appeal to prostrate before to and worship the Mother, in the form of Durga incarnated in the guise of India, is forbidden in Islam, a fair enough point that any non-Hindu would make.
However, in the heat and din of the recent controversy, the ‘mainstream’ Indian media, some notable exceptions aside, shamelessly shed all pretensions of ‘secularism’ and made it out to be that by refusing to sing the song Muslims were demonstrating that they had no love for India and that they were ‘anti-national’. The point of how a mere song could be the test of Indian nationalism, the issue of the political context of the song, the clearly anti-Muslim thrust of the Anandmath and Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s own collaboration with the British, were all carefully glossed over. Nor did the ‘mainstream’ media raise the obvious point that forcible extraction of demonstrations of ‘patriotism’ by Muslims unwilling to sing the song were pointless and completely farcical. And the fact that the mounting insecurity and threats to their life, property and identity that many Indian Muslims face today at the hands of the votaries of the Vande Mataram, a situation that is hardly conducive to promote passionate demonstration of love for the country, was completely lost on the ‘mainstream’ media, which was awash with stories of Muslims singing or not singing the song.
It is not that both the Congress, votary of ‘soft’ Hindutva, the hardcore Hindutva lobby and the ‘mainstream’ media were unaware of the fact that appealing to or forcing all Indian school-going children, including Muslims, to sing the song would be stiffly opposed by most Muslims, for there has been a long history of Muslim opposition to this. In fact, it appears that it was hardly the intention of the ardent advocates of the song to promote patriotism by advising that all school-children sing it. Rather, it seems obvious that the brouhaha about the song was simply yet another stick for Hindutva fascists to beat Muslims with, to force them to accept their diktats and to terrorise them with threats of being expelled from India simply because of their refusal to sing a song that even most Hindus do not know and which fewer Hindus know the meaning of, being in highly Sanskritised Bengali. But this, of course, was a point that few ‘mainstream’ newspapers refused to point out, thus clearly revealing their underlying anti-Muslim bias and the fact that their perception of Indian nationalism is firmly within the framework of Brahminical Hinduism.
Another glaring instance of clear anti-Muslim prejudice in large sections of the ‘mainstream’ Indian media is the coverage of the recent blasts outside a mosque in Malegaon that claimed almost forty Muslim lives. While the Mumbai train blasts this July hogged the headlines for days, the Malegaon tragedy has received relatively little attention, probably because the victims in this case are Muslims. The identity of the perpetrators of the Mumbai train blasts is yet to be ascertained, but police, intelligence agencies and the media are insistent on what they claim, was an ‘Islamist terrorist’ hand. Consequently, hundreds of Muslims were arrested in the aftermath of the blasts. The contrast with the Malegaon blasts could not have been more striking. While it is entirely plausible that they could have been the handiwork of Hindutva activists and while the likelihood of Muslims being behind them extremely remote, if not impossible, the media is awash with stories that argue the unlikely thesis of a hidden ‘radical Islamist’ or Pakistani ISI hand behind the blasts and the theory that they could have been the fallout of intra-Muslim sectarian rivalries. It is as if Hindus could never commit such an act of terror, the hundreds of anti-Muslim pogroms in India which thousands of people have lost their lives in recent decades notwithstanding.
That probably explains why it is that, in contrast to the massive wave of arrests and harassment of Muslims in the wake of the Mumbai train blasts, the police have not deemed it necessary to arrest or question rabidly anti-Muslim Hindutva activists, who may possibly have been behind the blasts, on any significant scale in Malegaon and thereabouts. Nor is the ‘mainstream’ media demanding this. Instead, the Malegaon blasts appear to be fast disappearing from the screens and pages of the ‘mainstream’ media, being replaced now with stories about the court cases relating to the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in which some Muslims are said to have been involved. Even here the reporting is obviously biased and skewed, for few newspapers have cared to view these blasts, as they should be, in the backdrop of the widespread anti-Muslim violence in large parts of India just a year before in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in which thousands of Muslims were slaughtered in cold blood by Hindu mobs. Needless to say, the non-Muslim Indian media, by and large, is supremely unconcerned about justice to the families of the several hundred Muslims slain by Hindu gangsters in league with the elements in the police and the administration in Mumbai itself just weeks prior to the serial blasts and which must have provoked the perpetrators of the blasts to do what they did. Nor is the media talking about justice for the almost three thousand hapless Muslim victims of the state-sponsored massacre in Gujarat in 2002 and their relatives, and the victims of innumerable other such bouts of bloody anti-Muslim violence that do not seem to deserve any more than passing mention, if at all, on television screens and in obscure corners of some odd newspaper.
So much, then, for the ‘secular’, ‘patriotic’ pretensions of the Indian ‘mainstream’ media.
The author works with the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and moderates an online discussion group called South Asian Leftists Dialoguing With Religion [http://groups.yahoo.com/group/saldwr/ ]